Development of Interactive, Educational Software in Neurophysiology
Ann Stuart develops and updates Neurons in Action, a unique learning tool combining extensively hyperlinked text with computer simulations of laboratory experiments. Published first in 2000 with co-author John W. Moore by Sinauer Associates, this software has been used nationally and internationally in undergraduate, graduate, medical, and biomedical engineering courses. Neurons in Action Version 2 was published in spring of 2007. The development, evaluation and dissemination of Version 2 is supported by a Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement grant from the National Science Foundation.
The subject of neurophysiology is often intimidating to students who may not easily relate concepts such as conductance and capacitance to their general understanding of biology and physiology. Yet with the subject of neuroscience expanding in so many directions, it is essential that the neurobiologist have a grasp of the fundamental principles of neuronal function and an appreciation of how the field can be aided by computational tools. Neurons in Action attempts to make neurophysiology approachable and engaging, to illuminate the computational approach, and to show how pathology can alter neuronal excitability.
Neurons in Action comprises a set of interactive tutorials (25 in Version 2) on CD-ROM based on the professional simulator NEURON. It is unique in presenting neuronal activity as moving graphs, or "movies" of impulses traveling along the axon or cell, and in being hyperlinked to a wealth of supporting information. The user performs experiments by specifying cell or environmental parameters and the simulator plots the resulting voltage, current, and conductance changes in the neuron. By changing the neuron's geometry, channel density, degree of myelination, ionic environment or temperature, the student can experiment with the following: equilibrium and resting potentials; Na and Ca action potentials, currents and conductances in an isopotential patch including cardiac-like action potentials; single Na and K channels; propagation of action potentials in unmyelinated, myelinated, and partially demyelinated axons under a variety of conditions; voltage clamping a patch or an intact cell; activation and inactivation parameters characterizing different channel subtypes; excitatory and inhibitory synaptic potentials; integration of synaptic inputs on dendrites and spike initiation; action potential invasion of a presynaptic terminal arbor; and the insertion of specialized channels in CNS neurons that influence the neuron's ability to detect the coincidence of inputs. Tutorials suggest experiments, ask questions of the student, and provide hyperlinked answers and supportive information.
While Version 1 of Neurons in Action related the tutorials to neuronal or neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis, Version 2 emphasizes even more strongly, throughout the tutorials, the effect of pathology and toxins on neuronal excitability.
In summers, Ann Stuart teaches at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.